by David Sugarman
When François Mitterrand’s funeral was broadcast live in January 1996, viewers were rather surprised to see that the principal mourners were not just the former President’s widow, Danielle, and their two sons, Jean-Christophe and Gilbert, but also his long-term mistress, Anne Pingeot, and their daughter Mazarine, then aged 22. Those in the know had, well, always known about Mitterrand’s “second family” but everyone else in France had been kept in the dark. Mazarine’s existence had, in fact, been revealed by Paris Match a year or so previously, with a paparazzi snap or two, but no one had taken much notice. Well, I hadn’t, at any rate.
It eventually surfaced that Mitterrand had lived a double life throughout his presidency, spending down time with both families. The “official” family attracted the glare of publicity in ways that was often positive (Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, was an articulate defender of many humanitarian causes who enjoyed an excellent personal reputation, while his brother-in-law, Roger Hanin, was a popular, media-friendly actor who starred in a long-running police series on television), but occasionally less welcome (his elder son, Jean-Christophe, got into very hot water over arms trafficking charges in Africa). But not a word was ever said about the “unofficial” family, and not a picture shown. Journalists and, presumably, politicians on all sides were aware of the situation, but they all agreed to toe the line: in France, everyone is entitled to live their private life in complete discretion, and a President was no exception.
Mitterrand did not live in the era of the smartphone, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, nor in the era of 24-hour news. The current incumbent, François Hollande, is less fortunate. The likelihood is that practically every French President has had his share of romantic dalliances while in office. In 1899, President Félix Faure died in the company of his mistress at the Élysée Palace. In very close company, shall we say. Oh là là! There were persistent rumours about a friendship between Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and a well-known actress in the 1970s. It’s claimed that Jacques Chirac’s driver, charged with driving the President to his assignations, nicknamed his boss “Mr 10 Minutes (shower included)”.
So there’s nothing particularly sensational about the recent tabloid revelations about Hollande and the actress Julie Gayet. To some extent, Hollande’s private life has always been acted out in public. He met his original long-term partner, Ségolène Royal, in the late 1970s, and they both became part of François Mitterrand’s political inner circle in the 1980s. They both held a number of elected offices, Hollande becoming Leader (premier secrétaire) of the Socialist Party and Royal a prominent minister. Cameras were on more than one occasion invited into the couple’s home to observe their four children eating breakfast. When Ségolène Royal became the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 2007, no one doubted that they were still a couple. After the polls closed following the second round of the election, which was comfortably won by Nicolas Sarkozy, a heated row between Royal and Hollande was observed by TV cameras taking place in a well-lit room close to an uncurtained window. A raging argument over political strategy, surmised the TV presenters. Er, probably not: later that evening, it was announced that the couple were officially splitting up, and in fact had been living apart for some time. Hollande had begun a relationship with the journalist, Valérie Trierweiler, in 2005, but this had been kept hush-hush by the complicit media.
When it comes to sexual peccadilloes, Dominique Strauss-Kahn takes the biscuit. The escapades of the former Director of the IMF in New York made front-page news around the world, while it perhaps has been less well reported outside France that he is currently accused of proxenetism in a case involving a ring of high-class prostitutes in Lille. DSK, a former finance minister, was widely thought to be in pole position to win the Socialist Party primary in 2011, ahead of the following year’s presidential election. He had already been endorsed by several party luminaries when the chambermaid walked into his suite at the Sofitel New York. If he had gone on to win the Socialist Party nomination, he would very likely have beaten Sarkozy to the top job. So if Julie Gayet was destined to have an affair with a French President, she can count herself lucky it wasn’t DSK, I suppose…
Traditionally, everyone acknowledges that public figures have the right to shut the door office firmly behind them each evening, figuratively speaking. What occurs out of office hours is out of bounds. Especially if it happens in the bedroom. On questions of moral turpitude, even the most vulture-like tabloid press plays by the rules. No “pants-down” exposés, no “nanny tells all” exclusives. That’s not to say that there’s no investigative journalism over shady business dealings and exposures of all manner of financial corruption. But not over sex, marriage, cheating, affairs, illegitimate babies, and so on. If the TV journalists did know what was really going on when Hollande and Royal were seen having their very public barney in 2007, as I suspect they did, they kept schtum about it until the press release was published, putting the separation into the public domain.
But all that was changed by the taboo-busting Sarkozy, who turned his love-life into a very public soap opera and got caught up in the so-called “bling-bling” trappings of celebrity culture. François Hollande presented a contrasting image to Sarko in the 2012 election. He promised a “normal” presidency as an antidote to the perceived excesses of Sarkozy’s term. In a television debate between the two rounds of the election, Hollande made a long series of pledges about both the style and content of his presidency. One of them was: “If I am elected President, I will ensure my behaviour is exemplary at all times.” Unfortunately, it seems he was able to resist everything except temptation.
It is unclear at this stage whether or not Valérie Trierweiler will remain as Hollande’s partner. In truth, the French public have never been bothered whether or not the couple are married. The question mark in opposition circles has related more to the fact that she is living at the taxpayers’ expense. France has no official First Lady status but not only does a President require a “plus one” for formal occasions, there are numerous more informal duties to be performed which apparently justify a private office at the Elysée Palace with a staff of five.
The current scandal is being played out alongside daily developments in the uproar over the anti-Semitic content of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala’s show, The Wall, which has been banned by the French equivalent of the Supreme Court on the grounds that it constitutes an attack on human dignity. The ramifications of both of these affairs will last for years to come, certainly until the next presidential election in 2017. However, many of us struggling to make a living in France’s ailing economy now wish that the President and the Government could now get back to the job in hand of trying to engineer an economic recovery. After all, that is what Hollande was elected to do.